For sheer endurance and strength under harsh conditions, it’s hard to imagine a sport more demanding than the big wall climbing in the new documentary Meru. As vividly depicted by climber and cinematographer Jimmy Chin and his writer-producer wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the assault on Mount Meru at the headwaters of the Ganges River in India’s Gharwal Himalayas has enough gut-wrenching action sequences and stunningly beautiful vistas to thrill theater-seat adventurers and hardcore extreme-sports addicts alike. It’s also a glimpse into a special comradeship and the brand of obsession that drives athletes to cling to rock faces in howling winds at 20,000 feet.
The forbidding Shark’s Fin route on Meru Central had occupied the thoughts of mountaineers for years before American climbing buddies Chin, Renan Ozturk, and Conrad Anker teamed up for their 2011 expedition. It has a reputation as one of the hardest climbs on Earth. All three climbers had tried to scale it and failed; Anker was on his third round, and Chin and Ozturk had gone up once before without success. Each man had to carry 200 pounds of equipment, including in Chin’s case his video production gear. The sights they see as they cling to the near-vertical wall are simply breathtaking, with their own personal histories adding to the drama.
Mountain-climbing films have enchanted audiences ever since the silent era, but high-tech digital rigs of the GoPro variety revolutionized the capturing of visuals, freeing docs such as Meru to dramatize the climbers’ personalities as well as their bravery. The leadership of the veteran Anker, Ozturk’s archetypal climbing-bum energy, and Chin’s artful combination of storytelling and derring-do come across masterfully in Meru. Even if you’re only venturing past the popcorn counter.